This Takes Guts

Silvia Foti set about writing a biography of her grandfather, Jonas Noreika, a hero of the resistance in Lithuania, and she discovered that her father was a Nazi collaborator who directed the extermination of Jews in a number of cities, and she has written about this:

Eighteen years ago, my dying mother asked me to continue working on a book about her father, Jonas Noreika, a famous Lithuanian World War II hero who fought the Communists. Once an opera singer, my mother had passionately devoted herself to this mission and had even gotten a PhD in literature to improve her literary skills. As a journalist, I agreed. I had no idea I was embarking on a project that would lead to a personal crisis, Holocaust denial and an official cover-up by the Lithuanian government.


That is the book I started to write. My mother had collected a trove of material that included 3,000 pages of KGB transcripts; 77 letters to my grandmother; a fairytale to my mother written from the Stutthof concentration camp; letters from family members about his childhood; and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles. A few months into the project, I visited my dying grandmother, who lived a few blocks away. She asked me not to write the book about her husband. “Just let history lay,” she whispered. I was stunned. “But I promised Mom,” I said. She rolled over to face the wall. I didn’t take her request seriously; I thought she was simply giving me a pass because she knew how taxing the project was for my mother.


From Vilnius, Ray and I traveled as honorary guests to Šukoniai, the northern town where our grandfather was born, to see the grammar school named after him. We were shown the modest building of white bricks and oak trim. The school director, a roly-poly man with disheveled white hair, enthusiastically grabbed our hands, telling us how pleased he was that we had come to host the ceremony in homage to our grandfather. He had heard I was writing a book. I asked him, “How did you decide to name the school after our grandfather?” Stroking his chin, he answered, “It was during a meeting of the County Board. We wanted to pick a new name instead of the Russian one we had. Your grandfather’s surfaced immediately.” Then he pulled Ray and me aside so the others couldn’t hear. “I got a lot of grief at first when we picked his name. He was accused of being a Jew-killer.”

Ray and I were aghast. Accused of being a Jew-killer? I looked around the room, at the teachers and the principal. Who were these people? Who was my mother? My grandmother? Who was I? My mind whirled: There must be some mistake. The director stroked my arm in reassurance. “I’m getting more support than ever over choosing your grandfather’s name. All of that is in the past.”


In 2013 I spent seven weeks in Lithuania. I hired a Holocaust guide, Simon Dovidavičius, director of Sugihara House, a museum honoring Chiune Sugihara, who helped 6,000 Jews escape to Japan during WWII. We became an unlikely pair, investigating the life of my grandfather. I showed him all the monuments on my grandfather; he showed me pits of where Jews were buried because of my grandfather. I gave him the book published by the Genocide Museum stating my grandfather was a hero; he gave me Holocaust books stating my grandfather was a villain.

Dovidavičius was the first to suggest that my grandfather conducted the initial akcija (action) during World War II before the Germans arrived. It coincided with Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941, when Hitler invaded Russia, the same day Lithuania began its uprising with the Germans against the Soviets, marking the start of a Holocaust there, where 95 percent of its 200,000 Jews were murdered, the highest percentage of any country in Europe. (About 3,000 Jews remain in Lithuania today.)

Within three weeks, 2,000 Jews had been killed in Plungė, half the town’s population, and where my grandfather led the uprising. This preceded the January 1942 Wannsee Conference, when Nazi Germany decided to make mass-murder its state policy. Put in more chilling terms, Dovidavičius claimed that my grandfather, as captain, taught his Lithuanian soldiers how to exterminate Jews efficiently: how to sequester them, march them into the woods, force them to dig their own graves and shove them into pits after shooting them. My grandfather was a master educator.

I resumed the investigation. I sought out Damijonas Riaukia, a colleague of my grandfather during the five-day uprising. He was a 17-year-old in 1941. “Didn’t my grandfather have anything to do with the killing of the Jews?” “He wasn’t here,” he answered. “He had nothing to do with it. It was the Germans.” By this point I suspected a cover-up, but I needed proof.


By the end of the trip I came to believe that my grandfather must have sanctioned the murders of 2,000 Jews in Plungė, 5,500 Jews in Šiauliai and 7,000 in Telšiai.


Gochin has identified more than 100 relatives killed in the Lithuanian Holocaust. Our independent research has shown that my grandfather murdered Gochin’s relatives. We decided to join forces.

While I had been focused exclusively on my grandfather over the past two decades, Gochin had launched a movement in Lithuania to expose multiple men lauded as heroes by the Genocide Museum who played a role in the Holocaust. Three years ago, he launched a campaign to remove my grandfather’s plaque from the Vilnius Library of the Academy of Science building. Despite wide media coverage and a petition signed by 19 prominent Lithuanian politicians, writers, and historians, the government refused to remove the plaque. This month, Gochin presented a 69-page exposé on my grandfather, charging the government with a cover-up of the Holocaust. I’m trying to play my small part in Gochin’s movement by offering an affidavit of support describing my research on my grandfather.

In the face of tremendous resistance by the Lithuanian government, the effort to convince it to acknowledge its role in the Holocaust will be long and hard. The souls of 200,000 Jews buried in Lithuanian soil demand such a reckoning.

It’s one thing look into family history and find some skeletons, most families do, it’s another to face it head on and tell people that you have genocidal monsters in your family tree.

This could not have been easy.

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